pesticides rants urban beekeeping

Pesticide residue in urban honey: yes or no?

While many urban beekeepers think their honey is pesticide-free, urban residents, businesses. and municipal governments are heavy users or pesticides.

The best way to make yourself into a target these days is to say something negative about urban beekeeping. You may as well paint a bull’s eye on your beesuit. And those yellowjackets I’ve been complaining about? They can’t hold a candle to an angry urban beekeeper. Hear that? Those are arrows zinging by and I haven’t even started yet.

Yesterday an urban beekeeper told me that, unlike rural honey, his honey was pesticide-free. He went on to explain that he was miles from the nearest cropland and the concomitant pesticide abuse.

Now, this really took me aback. I’ve studied pesticide use and abuse most of my adult life and such a thought never—ever—occurred to me. In fact, just off the cuff, I would guess there is greater abuse, greater variety, and higher spot concentrations of pesticides in urban and suburban settings than in rural ones.

So I did some poking around on various urban beekeeping sites and discovered that “pesticide-free” is a popular assertion among urban beekeepers.

While I’m not a fan of conventional agriculture, I know some things about it. For starters, most farmers are in an economic stranglehold due to a bunch of factors that I won’t touch on here. But farmers need to watch every penny, and agricultural chemicals on a conventional farm are a big-ticket item. Farmers go out of their way to get the most for every pesticide dollar spent—and that means not applying more than necessary.

Chemicals on large farms are usually applied by licensed pesticide applicators, and the applicators most skilled in applying pesticides at the recommended rate without over-applying will win the most contracts. For farmers, the slogan is “As much as necessary but as little as possible.” It’s a simple financial necessity.

Homeowners are a completely different story. On the first warm day of spring take a folding chair to your local home improvement center, drug store, or hardware store. I’m serious. Make yourself comfortable and watch the pesticides fly off the shelves. Poisonous powders, granules, sprays, gels, and aerosol cans are hard to keep in stock. Stores sell truckloads of this stuff and there’s at least one such store on every block. You can even buy pesticides at most grocery stores: just throw them in your cart along with bread, lettuce, and baby formula.

People take these preparations home and douse their precious flower beds under the assumption that if some is good, more is better. I once saw a woman empty half a can of insecticide on a single hapless spider. She just kept spraying and spraying and spraying until the poor creature keeled over from the sheer weight of the stuff. The really sad part is that insecticides are designed to kill—you guessed it—insects. Many of these products just annoy the spiders, which are not insects at all.

The problem is that homeowners are not trained to use these products and usually don’t bother reading the label. And even if they do read the label, they often can’t identify the thing they are trying to kill. The whole system is flawed.

It turns out that homeowners are not the only culprits. Several studies have shown that golf courses use 5 to 7 times more pesticide per acre than the most intensely managed farms. Other big users include highway departments, park departments, utilities, cemeteries, city and county governments, apartment complexes, and office parks. These are mostly urban and suburban entities. I would love to know the average pesticide use per acre in the urban versus the rural environment. I have a hunch it would be shocking.

Now, for those urban beekeepers who think their honey is pesticide free, I ask you: How do you get your bees to avoid lawns, planting beds, flower pots, hanging baskets, planter boxes, and gardens that contain these things? Remember that a bee during a nectar dearth may forage within a five-mile radius of the home hive. That is 78.5 square miles or 50,240 acres. Do you have any idea how many households or other entities can fit in that area? And how many of them are working overtime to keep the pesticide industry in business? The amount of pesticide use in urban and suburban areas is nothing short of staggering.

So which honey truly has more pesticide contamination? I don’t know. But I think it is unfair to assume that urban honey is purer than rural honey, and I think it’s even more unfair to promote it that way. Until someone has the time and financial wherewithal to make a detailed scientific study, it is irresponsible for either side to make such a claim.

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  • Interesting. I grew up in NYC and I can readily believe that pesticide use by homeowners is pretty low. I grew up in an apt with a 3-sided wrap-around balcony, we never sprayed anything because the bottle would be WAY more than we would ever need. I knew very few people who tried to grow anything and even fewer that would spray. But pesticide-free urban honey was not what I had heard about urban beekeeping. What I had read was that beekeeping in urban areas is often more SUCCESSFUL because people in cities/suburban areas tend to plant nectar-bearing flowers that span several seasons, so there was more forage available. Thanks for the post.

  • This is an interesting question. I think you’re right and both types could potentially face contamination.

    In the UK our National Bee Unit collects samples of honey from UK honey producers for residue analysis. Collection of the samples is done the same time as apiary inspections for bee diseases. Customs also analyse honey coming in from outside, which is good to know.

    The results are published regularly in this publication: Last year, of 166 samples two were found to have above allowed concentrations of Tetracyclines, which Wikipedia tells me are used as antibiotics, as treatment against acne infections and also by vets. Maybe picked up by the bees as they collected water? It’s reassuring that most of the samples were safe but the amount of icky things being used out there is a worry.

  • What I would like to know if how much LEAD shows up in nectar and pollen collected by the bees in an urban setting. I live in a city where the content of lead in the soil is so high that it’s dangerous to eat vegetables grown in the soil. My bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers that grow in the lead-contaminated soil. Leaded soil is a problem in many cities across North America. It’ll be a hard blow to urban beekeepers if it turns out all their honey is full of lead.

    • Phillip,

      You asked me this question about six months ago and I have since gathered a few scientific papers on the subject. I have also been in contact with a professor who specializes in nutrient uptake by plant roots. I still need to distill all this info but I will try to post on it within the week.

  • I live in the second largest city in my state. I have industrial buildings all around. I’m less than a mile from the busiest street in the city and a few miles from the airport. Pesticides are not the only chemicals dumped in the ground, air, water. So my question is, what other things can contaminate honey? Air pollution…chemicals absorbed by plants…contaminated water?

    • Jason,

      Interesting that you brought this up. When I wrote the post about pesticide residue I started to tackle other environmental pollutants as well. But then I realized it was way too much information for one post.

      I’m going to do one on lead and then tackle some of the other pollutants. The short answer is that both pollen and nectar are sticky and the attract all kinds of pollutants out of the air. Also, plants absorb these things from the soil and they end up in the nectar and pollen via that route as well. We’ve made a mess of our world.

    • Bill,

      Yes, but I don’t have it readily at hand. One piece I read in draft form indicated that air pollution, rather than soil/water pollution, was the primary cause of lead in honey. Apparently the particles can stick to the nectary rim and contaminate during collection, especially in those plants with shallow corollas. The expected route, up through a plant’s vascular system, seemed to be less of a problem, but in any case the amounts were very small. I don’t know the current status of the paper.

  • What kind of honey is SAFE to eat? If farms, roadsides, urban lawns and gardens are all treated with pesticides linked to cancer, is ANY honey safe? i just had major abdominal surgery due to suspected cancer, and I do not relish having to go thru THAT again……..thanks for your reply.

    • Linnae,

      Nearly all honey is safe to eat. Remember that we cannot escape our environment. Humans have been tested for pesticides in their bodies all over the world. Even remote tribal members in deep jungles and arctic islands are found to contain pesticides in their bodies. That’s because the chemicals permeate the soil, the water, and the air. There’s no getting away from them. Since honey contains no fat, it is not highly contaminated. Most of the pesticides reside in fats, lipids, and oils, but not so much in carbohydrates. Honey is not something you need to worry about.